Jen Hewett is a successful print maker, surface designer and textile artist. She is also an advocate for women of color who enjoy expressing themselves with craft. Knowing that there are makers out there who look like her but not seeing their representation in big-name craft events, Jen set out to document their voices through interviews, essays and questionnaires. The resulting stories of textile artists, from hobbyists to full-time studio artists, reveal the thread that binds us all.
What inspires you to create?
I make things because it’s my nature to do so. I have a lot of things I want to say, and making is my form of expression. Sometimes the thing I make is a scarf, other times it’s a quilt, sometimes it’s a bag, sometimes it’s a book. I create the things I want to see.
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When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m both! Because so much of my work is commercial, I have product timelines and client deadlines. But I don’t create well under a lot of pressure, so I have to block out time every day to just draw and print.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think we’re all inherently creative. You see this in children – they draw, they make up songs and stories. At some point, though, we start to equate being creative with being artistic. However, while creativity and artistry are related, they aren’t the same thing. It’s not so much that people need to learn how to be creative, but that they need to unlearn all the conditioning that tells us that if we don’t have artistic skills we’re not creative.
What inspired your new book, This Long Thread? What do you want readers to take away from it?
I knew from my own experience that the craft world is a diverse place. However, the full diversity of the craft world often isn’t reflected in craft media, at craft conferences, in craft organizations – spaces from which people of color are often excluded. I wanted to create a space where our voices are included, where our stories are told the way we want them to be.
We love the artists you included in the book – several of them already have Spotlight interviews on Create Whimsy. How did you decide which stories to include?
The book has three different types of content: interviews I did, essays I commissioned from others, and responses to a survey that I’d created and circulated in 2019. I had a list of people that I wanted to include – either as interview subjects or as essay writers – but I also knew that the survey would help me find more folks. It was important to me that I include makers who didn’t have a national (or international) reputation, or large social media followings, and the survey allowed me to hear from a much broader range of makers.
When you take on a new creative skill, is it because an idea comes out of the blue, or is it more likely to be in response to a particular need?
How did printmaking and surface design tempt you, and how did you fit a printing/surface design/sewing studio into a San Francisco apartment? How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I’d worked in operations for different companies, and really loved setting up and improving organizations’ workflow. Printmaking is inherently operational, and the better you are at the operational side of printmaking, the better your work will be. Understanding how every step in the printing process fits together informs my creative process.
When I lived in San Francisco, my print studio was in an enclosed back porch. The entire room was about 54 square feet. I kept that room very organized – everything had its place – and set up drying racks in my adjoining kitchen because my studio was too tiny for anything more than my printing supplies, print table, and silkscreens.
Much of my surface design work is digital. That requires far less space – just a place to draw, and room for my computer and scanner.
How do you start your studio day?
Since moving to the East Coast, I’ve spent the first part of my work day drawing. I don’t respond to email until after lunch. Most of my clients are on the West Coast, and the time difference means that I’m responding to their emails right as they’re sitting down to work.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I still draw almost everything in pencil, on paper, first. It’s helpful for me to think about form and layout before I dive into color in Photoshop or Procreate. Thinking about color too early in the process can derail my drawings. It’s easier for me to work on one thing at a time!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I use a sketchbook, and I save everything! I often revisit work years after I initially created it, digitizing and recoloring it. My fabric collections include new work, as well as work that is more than five years old.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It really depends on my mood. Some days I need to work in silence. Other days I listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts. The genre changes daily. I like news and culture podcasts for work, but I’ll sometimes listen to a romance or crime procedural audiobook if I’m working on a large project.
Was showing your work – putting yourself out there – always a part of your creative life?
Oh, yes. Much of my work is commercial, so I have to share it if I want to sell it!
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I draw A LOT. My work gets better the more I draw. I also like taking classes. The classes don’t have to be directly related to the work I do. I recently took a class in improv quilting that really informed how I think about movement and pattern mixing.
What is the role of making mistakes in the creative process?
I look at everything as an experiment, so there are no mistakes, just different paths to explore.
How did you make the transition from a 9-to-5 day job to full-time artist? What key nuggets of wisdom do you have for others who aspire to do the same thing?
I was laid off from my full-time job in 2008, during the Great Recession. I started working part-time as a self-employed HR consultant a couple of years later. This work supported me financially while I was building my art career. I could increase and decrease my work hours as I needed.
I always tell people not to quit their day jobs until they can absolutely afford to. Following my own advice, I was an HR consultant until the end of 2016. Income from that work allowed me to develop my artistic voice and career without having to worry about earning a living from my creative work. You don’t want to put pressure on your art to support you when you’re just starting out.
How do you stay connected with people who admire, and hopefully collect, your work?
I send out a newsletter twice per month, and I share my work and process on Instagram.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I don’t blog or update my website (except for my shop) as often as I should! My business has grown pretty dramatically over the past three years, and I’m pretty much the only person keeping it running. There just hasn’t been time to blog or update my site. I’m starting to do some strategic planning for all this growth, so that will all change next year.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I no longer teach in person, except for a very specific type of established nonprofit arts education organizations that serve a national or international crowd. I’m booked for 2022 and 2023, and am not looking to add new venues at this time.
I do have online classes on Craftsy and Creativebug that are always accessible.
Interview posted November 2021
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